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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Musical examples of scales

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Musical examples of scales

I often tell my students that I hated playing scales.  I feel it important to explain to them that although playing a scale up and down from root to root is a useful  hoop to jump through for passing exams, it isn’t really any fun!

I only got into scales when I saw a use for them and then my world changed completely.

Once I realised that in order to get a particular sound you could use a certain scale then it became fun and I delved into the exploration of scales and the associated harmony like Indiana Jones (or probably more like Mikey from the Goonies)!

Here are some scales that you can explore to get really cool sounds:


Ignoring the Ionian as this is commonly know as the major scale and is used in everything, we come to the second mode Dorian.  Where better to start when talking modes than modal jazz pioneered by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and a few others.  Becoming hugely popular by the end of the cool jazz period of the 1950′s, 1959 was a year of amazing album releases including Kind of Blue.  This Miles Davis album, I believe, is the best selling jazz album of all time.  Have a listen to So What and not only is the dorian scale used extensively but it has one or two other quirky features; the whole tune uses just two minor seventh chords and the bass player plays the tune!



Next in the modes list is Phrygian.  A dark sounding scale which is often embraced by modern jazz players and metal guitarists.  It has a slightly trippy quality as demonstrated by Jefferson Airplane playing White Rabbit.



I love using Lydian as it’s a bright scale but without the cheese factor!  I often use it as a substitute for a bog standard major chord as it adds colour but also takes away the horrible clash of the perfect 4th.  You will see this chord all the time in real books as the symbol …Maj7#11.  It has a dream like quality and that led me to this great example from Fleetwood Mac.  Its called, erm… Dreams, funnily enough!



Often used as a means to move harmony or return to an existing ‘home’ point, the Mixolydian scale doesn’t always get played in its own right.  A good jazz example is Killer Joe by Benny Golson and I love bands like Gong, and Ozric Tentacles playing extended sonic explorations of it, but heres a more popular example: Norwegian Wood by the Beatles



Aeolian appears a lot and is often used in conjunction with the major scale as the two scales are relative to each other.  If you play tunes like Fly me to the Moon or Autumn Leaves in a horizontal/key centred fashion then you will be playing Aeolian at some point.  It is often used in latin music as it has that sort of feel (Blue Bossa is a good choice if you want to explore it in more detail) but here is a pop tune so that I’m not accused of being overly jazz biased! I kissed a girl – Katie Perry


The darkest of the modes, this has an eerie feel.  It contains the tri-tone interval which has in the past been nicknamed the devils interval.  I rarely use Locrian as a single scale choice.  Most of the time I play it over minor II V I progression but even then, it is sometimes replaced.  Here’s a great example though.  I love Bjorks music and this is a mighty track.  Army of me – Bjork

Whole Tone

The whole tone is a great scale for adding some symmetry into your music as all the intervals are the same.  As the name suggests, its just a series of tones (whole steps for the Americans) and it produces a 6 note scale.  Its an odd sound but it can become stale quickly as once you’ve explored the 6 notes there’s nowhere else to go.  Wayne Shorter uses it to great effect on JuJu


Lots of people think that jazz musicians just play any old chromatic note, but actually the chromatic scale is not a first choice for most.  It has the greatest number of possibilities as it has the maximum 12 notes (unless you start dabbling in microtones).  This leads to a huge amount of choice but it can be overwhelming.  Plus too much step by step chromatic movements can either sound tense or just bad!  Here’s a fine example of the chromatic scale being exploited: Master of Puppets – Metallica


Phyrgian Dominant (Gypsy Scale)

My favourite example: Miserlou by Dick Dale.  This was a surf rock version of the traditional middle eastern song and was made famous by Quentin Tarantinto’s Pulp Fiction

Hirojōshi Scale

If you’ve ever visited a music event in a big exhibition centre you will no doubt have heard some endorsed guitar virtuoso shredding the hell out of this scale.  The name is slightly debatable as it has several different versions, but its basically another form of pentatonic scale which the Japanese are quite fond of.  For some reason, guitarists love to find these weird and wonderful scales and then play them over Satriani type backing tracks.  I’m probably being this flippant as I can’t play the guitar and I secretly wish I could have a purple Ibanez, place my foot on the monitor and have an industrial fan sweep my long hair back whilst I play with a fine balance of distortion and chorus in a massive stack!


So there you go.  A whole bag of scales for which you can dig in and try making up some sounds.  Getting familiar with them is not only fun but it also allows you to transcribe with less effort as your ear will immediately tag the sound you are hearing.  Once that sound is labeled it is much easier to store.  If your theory then kicks in, it will tell you which chord (or chord sequence) to use.  Have fun and please let me know if you find any others or if you have any particular experiences with a scale.

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